Book Review: Deathstalker Rebellion (or: Asking too many Questions about a book called Deathstalker Rebellion)
So, having kicked off my blog’s book reviews with a kinda-sexy book, I figured I’d cleanse the palate, so to speak, with some good old space violence. Hence, today’s review of Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker Rebellion. One could make an argument that by going from a sexy book to a violent one, I’m contrasting Eros and Thanatos, blah blah blah…but really this one just happened to be the next book on the stack. Funnily enough, I’d say that Kushiel’s Dart is the better novel overall, with better plotting and worldbuilding, but more on that later.
Some background- this is actually the second book in Simon Green’s Deathstalker series, but I won’t bore you with an in depth recap of the first novel (especially since I read the first one like a year ago). The gist of it is, there’s this guy named Owen Deathstalker (his isn’t the worst name in the book, more on that later) who is declared an outlaw by the Big Evil Space Empire, and so he’s forced to run around the universe having swordfights with space vampires and alien cyborgs and robot zombies and other such monsters. As you do. Also there is a space werewolf.
A friend of mine once mentioned that Green writes his books more like collections of short stories, and this is really apparent in this Deathstalker book. In particular, for a dude who the series is named after, Owen Deathstalker only shows up in two of the chapter/novellas (chaptervellas?) of the book. And so, the book jumps from one set of characters to another as they invariably wind up in other parts of the galaxy where they swordfight other monsters as they pursue their various agendas. As a result, we see a wider view of Green’s Deathstalker universe, and we get to see it making less and less godamn sense.
I’m kind of glad I didn’t find this series when I was in middle school, as I probably would’ve gobbled these damn things up and thus developed a layer of youthful nolstalgia that would make me think back on them less critically. Green tosses in all kinds of weird alien monsters and robots and such, which is fine- but he crams in SO MANY elements that things get muddled and incoherent. For example, the Big Evil Space Empire is somehow both the most powerful force in the universe…and yet it runs into terrible vaguely Lovecraftian aliens all the damn time. And the biggest thing is, each time they run into these aliens, it reads like it’s a different inexplicable alien race, which makes me wonder how many of those are out there.
On top of that, Green’s treatment of technology is…puzzling. I admit, this is a book with a picture of a dude dressed up like Cosmic-Errol Flynn fighting with a sword on the cover, so I’m not going to expect hard SF equations. Yet at the same time, a lot of this feels like Green fit the technology to fit the action, rather than vice versa. For example, in Green’s world, disruptors (read: laser guns) are stupidly expensive, and take two minutes to recharge after firing once. So, y’know, you zap a dude, and then you have to pull out your sword to fight everyone else. Fair enough. It’s even kind of swashbuckly. And yet, I can’t think of any character who came up with the bright idea of ‘maybe I should carry more than one laser gun.’ And that’s not getting into the somewhat incoherent uses/capabilities of force fields, hover-cars, teleportation, and other stuff that Green flings about willy-nilly. It’s all there to facilitate swordfights.
And man, there are a lot of swordfights. Every chapter/novella has one, just about. Even the chapter about the Big Evil Space Empress holding court has a nigh-unstoppable killer swordfighting android crash the party. That chapter’s a particular slog, too, as it just bounces from one set of characters to the next, neatly expositing their various schemes. There’s some politicking by family Clans, in imitation of the Houses from Dune. And it even gets to be kind of racist, as the vaguely Japanese clan is the one in charge of the Empire’s computer systems, because…yeah. Of course, the clan politicking rarely goes any farther than “I don’t like the dudes in the other Clan. I will get them later! (Somehow).” And on top of that, the Big Evil Space Empress is so cacklingly, moustache-twirlingly evil, it really makes me wonder how the hell she got to her position without, y’know, doing ruler-y stuff. I mean, at least you could trust Ming the Merciless or Emperor Palpantine to Get Shit Done before they got to the evil gloating.
But yeah, swordfights. Green revels in the ultra violence, and some poor schmuck is bound to get stabbed, chopped up, laser gunned, eaten, or otherwise dismembered in every chapter. While I like some action in my books, Green just heaps it on and on and on, to the point where it gets tiresome. There’s little sense of escalation in this book, as EVERY encounter and EVERY combatant is OMG UP TO ELEVEN!!1!11!!oneoneone. The lack of ‘scale’ when it comes to dangerous situations removes the stakes from the inevitable conflicts, so they come off as boring rather than the exciting climaxes they should be.
On top of this, often the characters doing the fighting have names like Owen Deathstalker, Jack Random, Inquisitor Frost, Jenny Psycho, Razor, or John Silence. Add in a hacker and you’ve pretty much got your band of PC’s from the first time you played Shadowrun.
I knew Deathstalker Rebellion wasn’t going to be high literature going into it. However, as far as space adventures go, I’ve read better. Heck, the first Deathstalker novel was better paced and plotted out (though it still had the garbled ‘everything and a dog’ setting). According to Wikipedia, Green wrote the novels to be a sort of parody, but I don’t think they work in that aspect, either, since most everything’s taken at face value, and the book just isn’t all that funny. Pastiche, sure. Parody? Nah.
I can’t say I recommend the book, unless you somehow read Deathstalker as a kid and didn’t know it had sequels until now. If you’re after hyperviolent kitchen-sink SF, go read a 40k novel, because the gonzo setting makes a bit more sense. Actually, DON’T go read a 40k novel, because most of them are terrible.
If you like Simon R. Green as an author, I’d suggest reading his other stuff- his Eddie Drood novels are just as crazy gonzo over the top, but they’re a lot better plotted out, and they’re narrated in a much more entertaining tone.
I think I’m gonna have to read some Real People Books, next. Stay tuned!